Worship Sunday at 10:30

Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

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Pentecost 10/17

The story of Jacob wrestling through the night with a man who we assume is God in human form is one of my favorite Bible stories because I can relate to the idea of wrestling with God.  As much as I might like my relationship with God to always be a comfortable walk together, there are times it feels more like a wrestling match and maybe you find the same thing to be true.  So I like this story in that respect, I can identify with it.  But still it’s not an easy story as it challenges the understanding of an all powerful God.  If God is all powerful, how come this wrestling match with Jacob at best ends in a draw?  It’s not consistent with how we often picture God so simple explanations don’t work very well when you try to figure it out, but then it’s the ambiguity of the story that makes it intriguing.  It creates questions and a little tension that should make us think about God and make us think about ourselves.

          A little background…Jacob, you may remember, isn’t the most likable of biblical characters; twice he cheated his older brother Esau out of what was rightfully his and in the process he also deceived his almost blind father Isaac.  Then he ran like a coward afraid of what Esau might do to him and while on the run, among other things, he managed to pull a con job on his con-artist father in law Laban, taking off with Laban’s daughters and a lot of his possessions.  Basically, Jacob is someone who will do most anything to get what he wants and he doesn’t care much about who he steps on or cheats along the way.

          After a period of time though, an angel of the Lord tells Jacob to go home.  That wasn’t necessarily good news for Jacob because it meant he would have to face brother Esau who had threatened to kill him, but even Jacob can’t disobey a command of the Lord.  It’s on his journey home that this nighttime wrestling match by the Jabbok River takes place.  It’s almost like the Lord says, “You’ve got to deal with Esau, but first you have to deal with me.”  But what a strange deal it was.  They wrestled through the night with no clear winner; Jacob winds up with a new name, Israel (which means something like “one who struggles with God”), but he also winds up with a limp, his hip out of socket.  He doesn’t learn God’s name which he wants to know, but he does get a blessing from him.  So maybe it’s a draw or maybe Jacob actually prevails in this contest. 

          It is hard to make sense of, but I came across another wrestling story that perhaps provides some insight.  It’s about a wrestling match that took place a few years ago in Iowa between Humboldt High School and Ogden High School.  On the Humboldt team there was one boy who had Down syndrome.  He wasn’t really able to wrestle competitively but he came to practice every day and came to all the matches more like a mascot and cheerleader for the team than anything.  In one of the last matches of the year though, against Ogden, his coach asked the Ogden coach if there was anyone on his team, more or less in the same weight class, who would be willing to wrestle this kid for a couple of minutes just so he could get out on the mat as a competitor, a little reward for all the time he spent in practice. 

          One of the better wrestlers on the Ogden team agreed to do it.  He could have easily pinned the kid in a few seconds but instead he wrestled with him for the maximum six minutes of a match and even let him do enough to win on points.  So not only did the kid get a chance to compete, he had the thrill of having his arm raised as the winner as the crowd and both teams cheered for him with tears in their eyes.  Maybe that’s what the story of a man wrestling with and prevailing against God is all about.

          For most of us, at least part of our image of God is as an awesome and all powerful God, that superhero God who can do anything and who certainly could have squashed Jacob like a bug in that wrestling match by the Jabbok.  There is plenty of biblical witness to that aspect of God in psalms like Psalm 29, “The voice of the Lord is over the waters; the God of glory thunders.  The voice of the Lord is powerful.  The voice of the Lord breaks the cedars, it flashes forth flames of fire, it shakes the wilderness and causes the oak trees to writhe.”  In other words, duck and cover; don’t get in the way of this God.  In the New Testament we get more of this as evidence of Jesus’ divinity comes in his ability not only to heal the sick, but to change and tame the forces of nature as he calms storms, things that only the all powerful creator God can do.

          We know that side of God; but then there are stories like this one of Jacob wrestling with God and parables like today’s about the persistent widow, stories that show God to be more than a powerful impersonal force, more than just a terrifying presence from whom we ought to cower in fear, daring only to offer praise and thanks and sacrifice.  In these stories we get more of a God who is vulnerable, who is ready to engage us, who is even ready to get down and dirty with us in the wrestling match of life.

          We have trouble picturing God that way but as Christians, we shouldn’t because the story of Jesus is a story of engagement, of God becoming one of us, of power made known in vulnerability and weakness to the point of dying on the cross.  The Jacob wrestling with God story winds up being a prophecy of how God will be revealed in Jesus.

          In Lay School a couple of weeks ago we looked at the hymn from Paul’s letter to the Philippians that says, “Jesus, though in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself…and being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross.”  Jesus emptied himself.

          The God of the Jabbok emptied himself for Jacob.  The wrestler from Ogden emptied himself for the boy with Down syndrome.  The emptying is done for the sake of the other and the match goes on long enough that the other is changed.  Jacob was changed by this encounter.  There’s the obvious things like the new name and the limp he would walk with from then on, but more significantly the deceitful youth who was Jacob became Israel, the father of a nation.  There is not much resemblance between the deceitful youth and the careworn old Israel whose story ends many chapters and years later as he is reunited with his beloved son Joseph in Pharaoh’s Egypt at the end of that story.  There are other factors involved in the change in Jacob, but the nighttime wrestling match with the Lord has to be considered a key.

          We are the spiritual descendents of Jacob, Israel, striving with God, wrestling with God at whatever level we are capable and he will stay on the mat with us as long as it takes, until we know God’s love and we are changed.  For us, part of the wrestling involves understanding the stories that reveal God to us, especially the story of God revealed in Jesus who came to wrestle with us and for us as the ultimate expression of God’s love.

          As was the case with Jacob, God could pin us anytime and be done with us.  But instead he lets us wrestle and he wrestles with us for our sake.  We might come away bruised but it’s for the sake of the relationship.

          The wrestling changes us, but a question that remains is, does it change God?  It’s another question that challenges our concept of God; “O God who changest not, abide with me,” as the hymn says, but then there are many Bible stories where God does seem to change.  Revisiting the Iowa story might help.  It’s pretty clear that the boy with Down syndrome would be changed by his wrestling experience.  You would think that it would be a moment that he will remember for the rest of his life.  But what about the other kid?  Was he changed?  I mean he had to already be a pretty good kid to do what he did, but wouldn’t he still be changed in a positive way?  Or was it just an opportunity to reveal his true nature to everyone there? 

The same questions can be asked about God; is he changed as he wrestles with us or is his nature revealed in new ways so that we are changed?  I’ll leave you to wrestle with that.  One thing you can be sure of though, at the end of your wrestling with God, your arm will be raised in victory.  In emptying himself, Jesus has taken care of that.

Rev. Warren Geier

Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor

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